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My first garden – sweet scents, sweet memories

Her father and grandmother influenced what she chose to plant in her yard.

By Sandra A. Miller / May 6, 2008

Bright blooms: Two men browse through the flowers offered at a nursery in Westfield, N.J.

Mike Derer/AP/File

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As I stood in the middle of the enormous garden shop with what seemed like every plant in New England within walking distance, something unexpected happened.

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It's my first year in a home with a garden, and it feels as though I've waited forever to fill my own empty patch of dirt. Yet, instead of stuffing my plastic cart – kid-in-a-candy-shop style – with every plant that struck my fancy, I wandered the aisles nearly immobilized by memories.

Both my father and maternal grandmother, lifelong Connecticut gardeners, came from German farm families and had a tough-love style with plants. Without much fuss, they made beautiful flowers grow, each in ways reflective of their personalities.

My grandmother, born in 1899, raised her children through the Depression and had little use for "expensive" annuals that needed replacing year after year.

Except for a white-painted tire in her yard that she filled with geraniums (they could, after all, spend the winter inside and be brought back to their outdoor realm in the spring), she preferred the thriftiness of perennials in which a one-time investment generated favorite blooms for years to come.

She loved her pink peonies, stalky white hollyhocks, and dense clusters of blue irises that always reappeared in daunting profusion.

She also cherished a wild rosebush that rambled across her backyard fence each spring then shed its petals in an unlikely snowfall on fresh grass in early June.

Each season, as if waiting for an old friend, she watched for the blooms on her hydrangea bush, those deep blue flowers that would fade to a dusky violet by summer's end.

My favorite plant in her garden was the bleeding heart that my sister and I called the Cinderella tree.

We used to pluck off the magenta, heart-shaped blossoms and stretch them open until each one looked like a princess riding to the ball in her coach.

Finally, I shook myself from reverie and drifted toward the perennials and shrubs section. After consideration, I set a bleeding heart in my cart. Then I selected a blue hydrangea before I made my way over to the roses.

My father's approach to gardening was far less sentimental. He was an annuals man, fond of marigolds, sunflowers, zinnias, and snapdragons.

Each spring he got right to the business of buying the newest hybrids with the promise of the biggest and brightest blooms.

I can remember him growing double dahlias the size of a baby's head and enormous chrysanthemum plants in every rich fall color. He also had a tender way with pansies and petunias that created a parade of vibrant color up our front walk.

Of the many things my father taught me about flowers, I most vividly recall him giving me my first whiff of heliotrope. I still remember being completely seduced by the sweet, heady perfume and stealing into the garden every day, sniffing it again and again.

I wound my way through the garden center's maze of annuals and sought out the heliotrope. I chose three little pots, which I stood and sniffed until I was a girl again, falling in love in my father's garden.

Somehow I was able to continue buying plants: Yes, zinnias and petunias and other beloved annuals for my father. Yes, perennials special to my grandmother.

There were so many other remarkable flowers that caught my attention, but somehow I managed to pass them by. They did not have that same hold on me.

As much as I wanted to plant my garden in my own creative way, I could not resist the stronger desire to have my two favorite gardeners share that first patch of dirt with me.

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